One day in August 2007, Daniel Coleman, an administrator in the Maryland court system, decided he should stay home to recover from an illness, as his doctor had ordered. But the day after he requested time off, he suddenly had more to worry about than his health; he was unemployed, too.
In many industrialized countries around the world, taking time off from work to deal with a medical issue isn’t just a benefit; it’s considered an entitlement, as much as an eight-hour day. But in the world’s richest nation, a worker who claims that right has had to appeal to the highest court in the land.
So the Supreme Court will now weigh the rights of public employees to seek justice under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The case, Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals, is based on Coleman’s lawsuit alleging that he was unfairly terminated following a dispute with his supervisor over leave time. Pitting Coleman, together with many civil rights advocates, against Maryland and 26 other states, the central question is whether a state can be held accountable under the law as a private employer would.
The FMLA basically allows workers to take 12 weeks of unpaid time off to deal with either a personal or family health concern. Although a worker at a private company can clearly sue for monetary damages if she is fired for taking time off for pregnancy or to care for a sick child–some courts have ruled differently for state workers’ rights. A lower court found that Maryland is shielded from legal liability in this case under the Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity clause.
The issue before the Court isn’t just a question of workers’ medical rights when they fall seriously ill, but of the state’s obligation to to its employees. Gender matters, too; the FMLA, under the Equal Protection clause, was designed to counter employment discrimination based on women’s medical issues, like childbirth. (But the “self-care” provision in the Coleman case covers both men and women.)